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Cancer and Motherhood: Breastfeeding Linked to Decreased Risk

May 10, 2019

For parents, there is perhaps no greater joy than holding their newborn baby in their arms. It’s a delicate time when parents are encouraged by their care team to bond with their new baby through skin-to-skin contact, and for mothers to consider breastfeeding.

Decisions about breastfeeding are highly personal. For women who give birth, the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby abound and go beyond improving overall well-being. Mothers who choose to breastfeed may experience health benefits including weight loss, lower osteoporosis with age, and one often overlooked benefit – lower cancer risk.

Breastfeeding may help prevent breast cancer.

Studies show that women who have given birth lower their breast cancer risk. According to researchers, this decreased risk may be due in part to delays in menstrual cycles that accompany breastfeeding. This can lead to lower exposure to hormones such as androgens and estrogen, which can influence cancer risk. How long does a woman need to breastfeed to gain the potential benefits? According to the American Cancer Society, women who choose to breastfeed for as few as several months may reduce their breast cancer risk. For every 12 months a woman breastfeeds, risk may be reduced by 4.3 percent, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Breastfeeding lowers cancer risk for other cancer types.

The benefits of breastfeeding go beyond breast cancer. Breastfeeding also may help reduce risk for endometrial and ovarian cancers. Women who give birth before the age of 26 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, specifically. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk decreases with each full-term pregnancy. Research from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that mothers who want to enjoy the full health benefits should breastfeed for a minimum of six months.

Many women struggle to breastfeed, particularly in the beginning.

If you’re a new mother or know someone who is, keep in mind that breastfeeding doesn’t come easy for all women. It’s common to experience pain or difficulty producing milk in the weeks following childbirth. Still, it’s important to avoid missing out on the potential long-term benefits of breastfeeding, including lower cancer risk. Seek the support of a lactation consultant, or talk to your physician.

Ultimately, a woman’s choice to breastfeed is personal and often based on cultural or individual values. While research supports the benefits to both mother and child, lowering cancer risk is another important consideration. Of course, not all cancers are preventable, and when patients need cancer care, our network of committed oncologists and multi-disciplinary teams put patients first – including many mothers– supporting them through every chapter of their journey.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.